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Gustavo Santaolalla’s Acoustic Minimalism

(Image credit: Manny Hernandez/Getty Images)

Gustavo Santaolalla (pronounced: San-ta-oh-lie-uh) is one of a handful of accomplished guitarists whose career began by playing in rock bands before “stumbling” into a career as a film composer. (Others include Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, Incubus’ Mike Einziger, Ry Cooder, Jon Brion, Heitor Pereira, Alan Silvestri and John Debney.)

What separates Santaolalla from his peers (with the exception of Cooder), however, is that he prominently features the guitar—along with ronroco, charango and other “guitar-like” instruments—in virtually all of his scores, perhaps his most famous being Brokeback Mountain and Babel, each of which earned Santaolalla an Academy Award for Best Original Score.

A guitarist since age 5, Santaolalla (b. 1951) was writing songs by age 10, performing in bands by 12, signed to a record label at 16 (as frontman of Latin rock/folk group Arco Iris) and became a pioneering “Rock En Español” producer in the Eighties and Nineties—all in his homeland of Argentina.

In addition to playing standard six-string guitar, as a child, Santaolalla also played ronroco, a 10-string instrument with five double/unison courses, its “Argentinian” tuning D G B E B (courses 3–5 are an octave higher than a standard six-string guitar). Santaolalla’s original ronroco compositions/chops are on full display on his third solo album, Ronroco (1998), where he “layered” himself playing charango, ronroco, Andean pipes, whistles and guitar.

When film director Michael Mann placed one of Ronroco’s cuts, “Iguazu,” in his 1999 film The Insider (starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe), Santaolalla’s film composing career was officially christened.

FIGURE 1 shows a six-string guitar adaptation of the main ronroco theme in “Igauzu.” (Note: This passage is much easier on an actual ronroco, its melodies typically played on the higher-pitched “lower” strings, picked with the thumb.) In 2006, this same piece would also provide the sonic signature for Babel, the Oscar-winning film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (recent Oscar winner for Birdman and The Revenant), whom Santaolalla had met years prior while scoring Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003).

FIGURE 2 similarly depicts “Should I Let Her Know?,” one of 21 Grams’ haunting Santaolalla-penned classical guitar pieces.

Iñárritu soon introduced Santaolalla to Brazilian director Walter Salles, and the two collaborated on 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries, for which Santaolalla again drew upon his ronroco abilities (GS’ ronrocos are made by luthier Pablo Richter). “De Ushuaia a la Quiaca,” hinted at in FIGURE 3, perhaps best illustrates how ronroco affords different melodic/harmonic possibilities from guitar, as the melody played in this capo-7 guitar adaptation falls on the second string; on an actual ronroco, this line would be played on the lower strings (which sound higher, due to the tuning) and picked with the thumb, producing a more “user-friendly” arpeggio pattern.

We’ll close this lesson with a look at a pair of pieces from Santaolalla’s gorgeous Brokeback Mountain score, namely “Snow” (FIGURE 4) and the 2005 film’s familiar theme, “Secreto en la Montaña” a.k.a. “The Wings” (FIGURE 5). Both are played fingerstyle on a steel-string acoustic and feature colorful variations on (mostly) common open chords.